"It's been very busy," says a smiling but weary Eric Mendelsohn on a chilly January morning in Lower Manhattan, during a break from scoring and sound editing on his Sundance-bound second feature, 3 Backyards. "The deadline of Sundance has put a lot of pressure on, which is necessary, and I'm grateful for that," he adds between spoonfuls of oatmeal at Le Pain Quotidien. "But it's been intense. There's no money, and pressure plus no money can be a real disaster."
On the one hand, such pressure should be old hat for Mendelsohn, who's been to Park City twice before — first with a 30-minute short, Through an Open Window, and then with his debut feature, Judy Berlin, which won Sundance's Dramatic Directing Prize and went on to earn three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature Under $500,000. (It lost to The Blair Witch Project.) On the other hand, that was then — 1999, to be precise — and in the subsequent decade, Mendelsohn seemed to vanish from the indie-film radar screen. Such disappearing acts aren't altogether uncommon for award-winning Sundance alumni — among them 1990 Grand Jury Prize winner Wendell B. Harris Jr. (who has yet to direct a follow-up to his Chameleon Street) and Primer director Shane Carruth — whose striking, original visions often fail to connect with mainstream audiences or to attract the attention of deep-pocketed Hollywood backers.
In Mendelsohn's case, he's quick to note that he's been dutifully writing scripts and trying to get a film made ever since Judy Berlin wrapped, albeit with certain conditions. "I guess the real question is: Why didn't I go and make a studio film?" he says. "I was offered plenty of them, but I have no idea what you're supposed to do with three years of your life and a script you think is juvenile. To me, shooting and prepping and editing are unbelievably exhausting and important and meaningful, and the idea that I would do it on a project I don't have a feeling for — there's not a bone in my body that's compelled by that idea. I'm not saying that every script that was ever offered to me was bad, but there's so much I don't connect with. I also think — and maybe this sounds a little highfalutin — that I have a lot of respect for this art form, and I don't know how to do it casually."
Set in a stretch of Long Island graced with the mythical name of Babylon, in the hours leading up to a solar eclipse, Judy Berlin belongs on any short list of the most impressive debut features of the '90s, from its luminous black-and-white cinematography to the remarkable control of tone with which Mendelsohn navigates his way through a bittersweet roundelay of wistful dreamers and lovelorn romantics. It is a movie fully deserving of comparison to one of Mendelsohn's acknowledged inspirations, the French New Wave director Jacques Demy, whose own debut film, Lola, features a similar cross-section of lives suspended in time in the city of Nantes. "Jacques Demy does a thing that I find very brave in all the artwork that I'm currently studying from and learning from, which is, he takes the chance of looking simplistic," Mendelsohn says. "He chances being called childlike, when in reality, Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and moments in The Young Girls of Rochefort aren't in any way simple or casually careless."
But Mendelsohn says he's a fan of any filmmaker "who is using visuals as a language, because nowadays you see that there's kind of like an international style of making a movie, in the same way that in the Middle Ages there was what's called the international style of draperies and statues. I hate anything that's a given. I hate any assumption about visual language. I like to see people using it freshly."
One of his recent favorites is the Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman), of whom he says, "She's got new combinations of shots to tell a story, and that's what I'm aspiring to. I don't even have to understand or like her films — though I do, by the way. When I saw her work, I was just amazed. She just seemed to have popped out of Zeus' head fully grown and using her own language, and I will take one person's idiosyncratic, specific, internally developed choice — right or wrong — over a committee's smoothed-out, conventional, rational decision any day."
Another ensemble drama set in the Long Island suburbs, 3 Backyards (which, due to its hectic postproduction schedule, was unavailable for preview) is described by its director as being "about three main characters, three stories, all on the same day. None of the characters meet, which was a total delight for me to think about when writing it, because there's that convention in writing that says your one character, at the end of his or her story, goes into a deli and buys a snack from the counter person, whom then we stay with, and it's their story. It's such a convention, and when you unwrap it, what do you have at the bottom? This idea that it's a small world after all? Hopefully, like magnets, these stories will have pull and push and resonance with each other, because they were written to be together but not in any kind of literal way. Nobody stops short, honks a horn and almost kills the next character."
The film also reunites Mendelsohn with his Judy Berlin star, Edie Falco, whom he's known since they were college classmates in the 1980s. Of their creative partnership, he says, "We've had kind of this lifelong discussion — or maybe Ping-Pong game — about art, where I would think a lot about art, and she would just feel her way through it. Over the years I've learned from her not to question or to think about a lot of things, and not even to retroactively engineer reasons for why you did things."
In the case of 3 Backyards, that means not asking himself why he has returned to the suburban milieu that was also the setting for Through an Open Window. "I've written and directed three films about the suburbs now," he says. "I was not living in the suburbs when I wrote them. I left when I was 18; I've never gone back. I think the things I've written about three times now are very personal and idiosyncratic, and why they come up in the suburbs rather than Manhattan, where I've spent most of my life, I don't know."
This much is certain: Eric Richard Mendelsohn was born in 1964 in Old Bethpage, Long Island, the fourth of five children of a scientist father (who designed target-recognition technology for F14 aircraft at Grumman Aerospace) and teacher mother. His siblings include a photographer, a physicist, journalist Jennifer Mendelsohn and critic and author Daniel Mendelsohn, whose best-selling, Holocaust-themed memoir, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, is currently being developed as a film by Jean-Luc Godard. In 2000, the online magazine Slate.com found team Mendelsohn sufficiently fascinating to have them participate in a weeklong series of e-mail conversations dubbed "The Breakfast Table." In responding to the hyperintelligent, terrifyingly articulate, sometimes uncomfortably confessional dialogue that followed, more than one reader likened the Mendelsohns to J.D. Salinger's fictional Glass family.
"It was a mixture of high expectations, exposure to lots of great art, as well as to the kind of pressure that either creates diamonds or crushed souls," Mendelsohn says of his childhood. "We weren't allowed to listen to rock music. I remember having "Free Bird" playing on my clock radio, and when I heard people coming down the hall I shut the radio off, because we would get in trouble for listening to something other than Bruckner or The Rite of Spring or the late [string] quartets of Beethoven as opposed to the symphonies."
His earliest cinematic memories are of watching movies on TV with his mother as they sat folding laundry together in a playroom, the fare an eclectic menu that ran the gamut from Jacques Tourneur's Cat People to David Lean's Great Expectations. "My mother has an unfaltering sense of what is well-made, without any formal training," he says. "She's the one who told me, when I was 8 years old, 'Oh, you have to see a Fellini movie.' I don't even know if she had seen a Fellini movie. I said, 'What is it?' and she said, 'Eric, it's like nuns and elephants dancing in a field.' I think she was remembering the silhouetted image from The Seventh Seal by Bergman, and she construed in her mind that that was Fellini. But she kind of got the essence of it."
Mendelsohn didn't start to think seriously about making films himself until he was a frustrated art student at SUNY Purchase (where he met fellow Long Islander Falco). "I'd painted my whole life, but when I got to school, where people really wanted to be painters, I saw the problem: I was looking for narrative," he recalls. "I would ask people, 'What should I paint?' And other students always knew what they wanted to paint. So I started doing portraits, because instinctively I thought, I can be telling about this person, and every color, every shape, every piece of composition has a meaning, because it's about something."
Eventually, Mendelsohn segued to the school's film department. Then, upon graduation, he answered an advertisement for a costume assistant on reshoots for Woody Allen's 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors — a three-day gig that turned into seven years of steady work as an apprentice to Allen's longtime costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland.
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"Then I was doing what I was most excited about, which was working for one of the great directors of the time," Mendelsohn recalls. "And because Jeff was one of Woody's most intimate collaborators, I got to participate and witness a level of filmmaking that would never have been open to me, and was almost embarrassing sometimes to be included on."
He mentions one particularly revealing moment, at the end of the first week of shooting on 1992's Husbands and Wives. "Woody looked at us all and said, 'That was the worst first week of any picture I've ever shot. I'm not sure I know what I'm doing. We need to talk.' And it was so thrilling. With [cinematographer] Carlo Di Palma, we all sat around, and at that point on that film, I started to voice an opinion, very meekly. We talked about, like, what's the camera doing? Everything was handheld — that was the first time Woody had ever done that. We were looking at dailies, and there was a shot from a scene at a Hamptons party, and everyone said, 'What's wrong with this?' And I said, 'The camera followed a waiter into the scene and then panned off of the waiter to find the main characters talking, and it was handheld and it was shaky.' I said, 'This is the way you're used to shooting the entry to a party, but if your camera is handheld and documentary-style, it doesn't have to pan in on a waiter. It just can go directly to the most important thing in the scene, like a documentarian would do. And it was very exciting to say something and not be stoned for it."
Today, Mendelsohn is a teacher himself, an associate professor in the film department of Columbia University, where he recruited many of his students to work on the 3 Backyards crew. "It was invigorating to have my students working around me, because I had to live up to what I teach," he says. "It's been so hard to make this film that I just said, 'No fucking way will I let myself down.' I'm not talking about the quality of the work. I'm saying I didn't let myself down in terms of sticking to my idea of just how strange and specific I wanted my choices to be."
Which brings me back to the suburbs — a terrain Mendelsohn seems intent on mapping, time and again, in all its specific strangeness. "I might have found this anywhere I grew up, but because I grew up in the suburbs, and because I'm a neurotic and a psychopath, I found everything hidden compelling about the suburbs," he allows. "I don't mean that in what I think of as the more conventional sense of, 'Everybody in the suburbs is hiding an affair' or 'Everybody in the suburbs is hiding personal angst.' I literally mean I was constantly interested in what was hidden, in my backyard, behind the hedges. I was always looking for an old foundation underneath the dirt. I was in love with the kind of empty, fenced-in, dirty areas, where there would be one woman's shoe lying unattended, and how did that get there? Those kind of underneath secrets always interested me, and that is at the very core of the stories in 3 Backyards and the way it was shot — the idea of secrets and insides, and of interior versus exterior, both in the characters and literally in the physical spaces. If you have to ask, Am I interested in the suburbs in any way? That is one thing I'm interested in. It's this funny tension between nature and people, and that is 3 Backyards through and through."